Monday, March 03, 2014

University In The Middle of 1st Amendment Tussle Over Donor's Plaque

The Indianapolis Star reported last Friday on dispute between Purdue University and one of its donors:
When Michael McCracken and his wife made a $12,500 donation to Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering in 2012, Purdue asked the engineering graduate to provide an inscription for a conference room dedication plaque, which would be installed in the recently renovated Herrick Laboratories.
But the words McCracken chose, in honor of his parents, turned out to be controversial.
“To those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions. In honor of Dr. William ‘Ed’ and Glenda McCracken.”
Purdue rejected the proposed inscription, concerned about church-state issues. Its attorney said:
[G]iven the facts here, our status as a public institution, and the hopelessly muddled state of jurisprudence in this particular area, we could fully expect lengthy and expensive litigation that would wipe out the value of this donation many times over, and we just don’t think that’s advisable for either the donor or the university. Still, we remain open to continued discussions, as we’d much prefer to be in the mode of expressing gratitude, not disagreement, to our donors.
The University's hope of avoiding expensive litigation, however, seems unrealistic.  The attorney for the McCrackens wrote the University on Feb. 26 (full text of letter) suggesting alternative language that makes it clearer that the inscription is private speech of the McCrackens. The letter concluded:
Please let us know by March 5, 2014, if you are open to discussing a potential resolution. If not, Dr. McCracken has instructed us to commence litigation to preserve the McCrackens' First Amendment right to reference "God's physical laws" on the plaque. We note that, if thismatter proceedsto litigation and Dr. McCracken prevails, the University will be responsible for his attorneys' fees.